Sunday, 24 July 2011

Why is no one surprised

Maybe it is too soon to make sense of Amy Winehouse's death. So far there has been no post-mortem, so no one knows exactly why she died. At the same time there seems to be no shortage of people assuming that the cause is drugs or alcohol, and she joins the long list of pop stars who died from using drugs. No one seems surprised and no one appears outraged that this could happen.
Graph added later, just to make the point that UK is getting it wrong on alcohol
Surely it is time that some serious questions were asked about UK drugs and alcohol policy. Of course it is too much to expect the newspapers to examine the wealth of scientific evidence, but there are answers in material that is more accessible to the usual media sources. Keith Richard's autobiography makes pretty clear why he is still alive and Janis and Jimmy are not. When he talks about using drugs, which he mentions quite often in his book, he keeps on saying three things. Use prescription standard drugs is the first message; pure substances in known doses. Street drugs are unreliable, no one knows what they are mixed with. They have probably gone through the hands of several dealers and each has probably diluted the original product with a filler of their own choice in order to increase their profit. No one keeps records. The end user really has no idea what they are taking. The second thing Keith says, several times, is that he injected intramuscularly rather than intravenously. That produces a slightly slower hit, but it doesn't damage veins and runs much less risk of thrombosis or septicaemia. Finally he says several times that there is a limit to how high you can go. Taking twice as much doesn't get you any higher, it just gets you dead.
So there is the package of advice, take pure and reliable substances, by a sensible route in non excessive amounts. Why can't the government say that and also arrange to supply safe drugs in sensible doses? Current policy has failed to reduce the number of people taking drugs, failed to reduce the number of people dying, failed to catch the criminals who supply the drugs and also probably made sure that the Taliban get plenty of money to shoot at our troops because most of the Heroin comes from Afghanistan. How much worse could a policy be?
Of course one more factor could be added to the list, in the rare case of Amy Winehouse; all those records she might have made, and all those taxes she would have paid, have been lost too.
Personally I can't say that I always liked her music, or some of the attitudes that she struck, but she clearly was talented, and although some of her problems were self induced, I am in no doubt that she was a victim. Killed as much by a media that thought they would sell more papers by reporting her drunk or drugged than they would by trying to help. Killed by a government that would rather pander to daft notions and victim blaming in the media, than face up to the evidence about drugs.
Of course one could take it even further. There are six major groups of drugs, typified by Alcohol, Tobacco, Cocaine, Opiates like Heroin, Marijuana, and a range of other designer substances like ecstasy. As a society we have chosen, at the moment, to make two of the six legal. In the past of course we allowed opiates and indeed fought wars to keep the trade open. I mention that simply to make the point that the choices are arbitrary and based on opinion at the time the laws are passed.
A hard look at the evidence makes it quite clear that we have picked the wrong ones to make legal. Tobacco kills at least 100,000 people each year in the UK, and alcohol is coming close to a similar number. Prisons are full of people who are there because they happen to be addicted to the wrong substances and resort to theft in order to pay the high prices demanded by the criminals who supply them. The hospitals are filled with the the people using the legal substances.
If we banned Tobacco and Alcohol and allowed Opiates and Marijuana instead, we would halve the prison population and increase life expectancy by several years. I appreciate that this is unlikely to happen overnight, but we could at least decide to make prescription standard drugs available to addicts, which would save some lives, reduce the prison population, put some of the drug barons out of business and starve the Taliban of funds. Some of the money saved could be put into helping addicts cope and be safer, and perhaps save the next Amy Winehouse.
If the post-morgen eventually shows that it was not drugs or alcohol that killed Amy; her death will still be as sad and tragic and the policies of the government and the media will continue to kill people, they just won't be as talented.


  1. Hey! I'd be really annoyed if wine was banned, and you can't seriously be suggesting it, can you? Millions of people drink in moderation without harmful effects.

    Also, as a mother, I'm really pleased hard drugs aren't on the menu - many more people would experiment if they were legal. (When contraceptives became readily available, it removed a stalwart excuse, "My dad would kill me if I got pregnant." This has resulted in a boom in STDs and unwanted pregnancies, plus teenagers being distracted at a time when they should be focused on getting qualifications.)

    I think we need more people in their right minds, not fewer.

  2. I will admit I was trying to be provocative, but I trying to make the serious point that current policies are a total failure. I am not sure that making drugs legal would make more people experiment, vast numbers do so already. it would depend how the legality was handled. I agree that alcohol in moderation does little harm, may even do some good in some cases, but over the last ten years we have managed to quadruple the number of people being harmed. We have achieved this by making it cheaper, more available and stronger. When was that debated as a policy? When did we decide it would be a good idea to kill four times as many people.
    So we have an alcohol policy that is a disaster and a drug policy that is a disaster. We have made some progress on smoking but one way and another I think it is time we as a society had a really hard think about all the range of substances we use to entertain ourselves and figured out the safest way to do things.
    I guess it would be too much to ask if we could do something about the millions on prescription psychoactive drugs who could have got by with talking therapies if they had been available.

  3. I don't agree with everything you've said and I don't know what the answers are; but I do know that the policies we have now are not working. It would take a strong Government to even open up a dialogue towards making changes to legislation, whether that be legalising one or prohibiting another. I don't see any Government risking their popularity to take those issues on. I wish I had an answer, but I don't.